What do Helmuth von Molke the Elder and marketing have to do with each other?

Or, no plan survives contact with the enemy.

As a history nut, there’s a lot I try and learn from listening to and reading history - both modern and ancient. I’ve recently been listening to Dan Carlin’s excellent series on World War One - Hardcore History: Blueprint for Armageddon, and discovered Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, who’s a fascinating guy.

He’s widely known as a brilliant military commander and strategist - one of the key figures in the rise of modern Germany into the great power it would become by the start of World War One.

His approach to strategy was extremely modern and forward looking, and there’s lots we can learn from him when we look at modern day digital marketing. You could even say he was one of the early proponents of agile thinking.

So, what can we learn?

Who was Helmuth von Moltke?


Before we jump into the relevance of Helmuth von Moltke the Elder’s thinking (from now on, von Moltke), we need to understand a little more about who he was.

You can read the full Wikipedia article on him here - this is the cliff notes version. Also - von Moltke is not to be confused with his nephew, Helmuth von Moltke the younger (you can see how that’s easy to do). Von Moltke the younger is a German Field Marshal in World War One who’s broadly credited with the failure of the Marne offensive in 1914, and the Schlieffen Plan - and potentially the mess that World War One becomes as a result. Anyway, on to the man himself:

Born in 1800, von Moltke’s childhood is shaped by the Napoleonic wars that have a major and detrimental effect on Prussia, which leads to him initially serving in the Danish army. He studies in both Denmark and Prussia, doing six years of officer training at military academies, and becomes a highly sought after strategist at a pretty early age.

He goes on to modernise the military of the Ottoman Empire, and becomes a valued aide to the Prussian royalty. As a side hustle, he maps Rome, and writes a book on how to choose the course for railroads (in their infancy at the time).

He’s clearly a pretty talented guy.

In 1857, he becomes the Chief of the Prussian General Staff - a position he holds for over 30 years, through the various European wars of the late 19th century and the establishment of the German Empire in 1871.

During this time, he creates a guide for field commanders called Instructions for Large Unit Commanders. This guide contains some incredible insight that could have potentially led to a completely different outcome in World War One if anyone had actually paid attention to it.

There are four key points - the rest of this post will look at how each of these can be applied by digital marketers today.

  • No plan survives contact with the enemy
  • In the last analysis, luck comes only to the well prepared
  • The surest way of achieving your goal comes through single minded pursuit of simple actions
  • Strategy is a system of expedients

No plan survives contact with the enemy

This is my personal favourite, and it’s one we should all be aware of - especially in an environment where marketers can adapt to changes so quickly (with the click of a mouse, even!).

Von Moltke’s original quote was “no plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy's main strength”, but it’s changed over time to reflect it’s true intent.

For the purpose of this post, we’ll view the “enemy” as two groups - competitors and customers.

The original intent of this was to make the point to field commanders that the best laid plans cannot account for one thing: the actual actions of the enemy on the day of battle. You can guess, estimate or predict, but the chances are that your enemy will also have a plan - one you’re not aware of.

Once the battle starts, you start receiving data from your enemy and your own forces about what’s going on - and it never exactly fits your original battle plans. That means field commanders have to be ready to adapt.

As a marketer, you need to be ready to adapt too. At the start of battle (or a campaign), you need to be prepared for your best laid campaign plans to be riddled with bullets and have your intuition and on the fly thinking ready.

The beauty of modern digital marketing is that all the data and intelligence you need is at your fingertips, and your campaigns are so easy to change that you can literally change them instantly.

This holds true for traditional media too - it’s just that that area is a little harder to adapt quickly.

Instead of treating a campaign launch as job done - treat a campaign launch as the start of the next phase, and that the value you generate really comes from how you adapt to the change, rather than your beautiful plans.

In the last analysis, luck comes only to the well prepared

This point might seem like a contradiction in terms. Here, it looks like von Moltke is telling us that without a great plan, you’re unlikely to experience the luck that you “need” to pull through on the day.

Instead, what von Moltke is really talking about is adaptability. Great preparation leads to in depth knowledge of all of the different levers you can pull, and all of the resources you have at your disposal (and their limitations). This makes it much, much easier to adapt to change (which we’ve already established will happen when your plan makes contact with the enemy).

While that first point might seem to make the argument against spending too much time planning, it really just makes the argument against treating your plan like a sacred cow that must be stuck to. It pushes it back on strategy for strategy’s sake - but it doesn’t excuse you from doing it altogether.

This means that as a marketer, your strategy needs to be focused on your key objectives, and you need to have a deep understanding of all of the different variables that can impact your campaigns.

Think of this like setting your main direction quickly, using your experience and education to understand the variables, and researching deeply any areas that you don’t understand. The experience part is hard to replace - you’ll need to do a lot of research to aggregate the insight of people who’ve gone before you.

You don’t need to know what changes you need to make when your campaign goes live - you just need to know the various things you’ll need to consider when you make these changes. Use the data that you’ve got at your fingertips and make sure you’re well aware of what it means.

The surest way of achieving your goal comes through single minded pursuit of simple actions

I love this one. Here, von Moltke is basically saying “don’t overcomplicate things, and get shit done”. How’s that for paraphrasing a quote from the 19th Century?

In marketing, as in war, it’s very tempting to view a solution to a problem as “too simple” and unnecessarily overcomplicate it. Often, all this achieves is more exertion for no extra benefit, and sometimes, it takes a simple idea that would have worked and ruins it.

That being said, the “single minded pursuit/get shit done” part of this comment is equally important. Even the best ideas are nothing if they’re not implemented, and often implementing a great idea requires a bit of single-mindedness.

Stay focused on the simple things that you know have value and make sure they happen. Simple as that, really.

Strategy is a system of expedients

Wrapping up our von Moltke quote binge is another goodie. Expedients is a bit of an old fashioned word, but it basically means “means of achieving an end”.

This relates nicely to no plan survives contact with the enemy. If you’re expecting your best laid plans to fall apart as soon as they hit the market/front lines, how do you manage once this happens?

Von Moltke’s advice is simple. Instead of viewing your strategy as a linear and co-dependent plan, view it as a series of options within a broader frameworks. This way, you can pick the right option (means/expedient) to suit the situation, rather than being locked into what your original (and now ruined) plan calls for.

Executing this concept is much easier in theory than it is in practice. It requires the people leading the strategy to put their egos to the side and focus on the “next most valuable action” rather than worrying about the optics of not executing the original plan.

It’s a perfect approach for digital marketing. By having broad set of options you can lean on to execute based on the response to your initial work, you can go faster and deliver better results than ever before.

Tying it all together with agile marketing

All this von Moltke history chat is great, but how do you fit it all together into improving your marketing performance?

The answer - agile marketing. Agile marketing is our modern way to take the ethos of von Moltke’s tenets - fail fast, be prepared, keep it simple, get shit done and know your next most effective option - and apply them to marketing projects.

As we’re laser focused on delivering tangible results, we’re forced to get our egos out of the way and follow von Moltke’s principles, rather than staying committed to combat ineffective plans.

Posted on

November 21, 2018